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7 October 2010

ROY WARD BAKER (1916 - 2010)

Marcus Hearn pays tribute to Hammer director Roy Ward Baker, whose death was announced today.

Roy Ward Baker, who died on 5 October, directed Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother To Knock (1952) and made the classic Titanic drama A Night To Remember six years later. In television, he was one of the leading lights of The Saint, The Avengers and Minder, amongst many other series. But he was also one of Hammer’s most prolific and accomplished directors.

Baker came to Hammer after a long stint in television, lending Quatermass And The Pit an epic sweep more common to his Hollywood or Rank productions. Hammer were so impressed they asked him to take over the embattled production of The Anniversary just weeks later. Baker took Bette Davis’ diva-ish demands in his stride, and in the process became a confident and efficient addition to Hammer’s A-list of directors. In 1968 he happily accepted an assignment to direct an episode of Hammer’s television series Journey To The Unknown, although by this time his association with the company had revived his film career.
 
Baker proved his versatility by handling Michael Carreras's 'space western' Moon Zero Two in 1969. The following year he set Hammer on a new course with The Vampire Lovers, but as Hammer’s old formula started to unravel he found himself at odds with the film’s independent producers. In later years he privately regretted some of the sexually explicit scenes that came to characterise Hammer’s change of tone in the early 1970s.

Later in 1970 he directed the similarly uninhibited Scars Of Dracula for producer Aida Young, participating on the condition that he could give the film the brutality he considered fitting for a Hammer horror. He remained justifiably proud of the scene where Christopher Lee’s Count scales the outside wall of his castle, as per Stoker’s novel.

Baker’s greatest success for Hammer in the 1970s was Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971) where, reunited with his old Avengers producer Brian Clemens, he delivered an arch and inventive twist on the classic tale. He later considered this and Quatermass to be his favourite Hammer productions.

In between consummate work for rival company Amicus, Baker directed his final Hammer film, The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires, in 1973. A widescreen Gothic horror/kung fu extravaganza, the subject and the Hong Kong location took Baker way out of his comfort zone. But the lavish-looking result proved once again that his was a remarkable talent that defied categorisation.

Roy enjoyed a long retirement, and earlier this year told me, “I didn’t expect to live this long!” During our meetings at his club it was clear that his traditional values and old-fashioned discipline distinguished him as a man after his time. But beneath his old-school exterior Roy was a liberal at heart, with a generous spirit and a passion for his craft. That passion burned brightly in his autobiography The Director’s Cut (2000) and remained undimmed to the end. 

Roy Ward Baker was the last of the great directors from Hammer’s golden age. It was a privilege to know him, and we are all richer for his legacy.

Roy Ward Baker
19 December 1916 – 5 October 2010

Picture caption:
Roy Ward Baker, flanked by Ralph Bates and Martine Beswicke on the set of Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde.

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